Oct. 31 marks the excitement of Halloween night for many children. While Halloween caters greatly to the general population, it can prove more complicated for children and adults with sensory processing difficulties.
According to The American Occupational Therapy Association, “between 5% and 15% of children in the general population demonstrate difficulties with sensory processing—the interpretation of and response to sight, sound, smell, taste, touch, and perception of movement and position.”
These challenges are often recognized under the umbrella term of sensory processing disorder and are commonly found in relation to other neurological diagnoses. While there is a strong connection between sensory abnormalities and other special needs, often autism, it is important to note that sensory issues are not exclusive to a certain population.
According to the Child Mind Institute, “Many parents of children with sensory issues call their behaviors sensory processing disorder or SPD. But SPD is not currently a recognized psychiatric disorder. Currently, sensory issues are considered a symptom of autism because many people on the autism spectrum experience them. But not everyone with sensory issues is on the spectrum. Some have ADHD, OCD or developmental delays. Or they may not have a diagnosis at all.”
Sensory processing abnormalities can also be associated with “premature birth, brain injury, learning disorders, and other conditions,” according to the University of Michigan Health Department.
While these abnormalities prove difficult, the implementation of occupational and/or physical therapy can be helpful in alleviating some of the anxiety and hesitance felt by those with sensory processing disorders.
According to the University of Michigan Health Department, “sensory integration therapy, usually conducted by an occupational or physical therapist, is often recommended for children who have sensory processing disorder. It focuses on activities that challenge the child with sensory input. The therapist then helps the child respond appropriately to this sensory stimulus.”
Sensory processing abnormalities are often associated with children; however, they can be found in adults. Occupational therapists offer assistance to all age groups dealing with these processing abnormalities.
According to the American Occupational Therapy Association, “Occupational therapists have unique training and skills in neuroscience, anatomy, and activity/environmental analysis to identify and treat occupational performance issues resulting from sensory modulation, sensory integration, motor, and psychosocial deficits in adults experiencing difficulties with sensory functions. They work with caregivers and medical, educational, and mental health professionals to increase awareness of the signs and symptoms of sensory-related problems and types of interventions used with adults.”
Based on the previous information, it is easy to see how Halloween can be an overwhelming night for those with sensory processing difficulties. The American Occupational Therapy Association prepared the following information in order to assist someone trying to create a fun and safe Halloween night for a child experiencing these difficulties:
Help the child know what to expect:
Prepare your child for the holiday by discussing some of the associated traditions and activities. Read a book, create a story, or role-play. Many Halloween traditions clash with established rules, like taking candy from strangers. To help your child understand what Halloween is—and is not— review your values and establish rules and boundaries.
Have the child wear a costume:
Remember that “pretend” does not necessarily involve elaborate costuming. For example, a simple green shirt may suffice to indicate a turtle. Before shopping, discuss costume guidelines so your child’s expectations are clear. Be sure costumes aren’t too scratchy, tight, slippery, or stiff. Test your child’s comfort when walking, reaching, and sitting. Costumes that are too long or too lose pose tripping and fire hazards. Consider whether your child will be too warm or too cold in character and whether he or she will also need a coat. If your child has facial sensitivity, avoid make-up and masks. Masks can also occlude vision.
Take the child trick-or-treating:
Trick or treating is not mandatory: Meaningful participation in Halloween festivities could include helping to roast pumpkin seeds or picking apples. Choose activities that best fit your child’s sensory needs. If you want to try trick or treating, focus on a quiet street with sidewalks. Trick or treating while it’s still light out helps to reduce anxiety and increase safety. Practice the sequence of walking to the door, saying “trick or treat,” putting the treat in the bag, and saying “thank you.” If possible, go only to homes of family and friends to keep the comfort level high. Skip homes with flashing lights, loud noises, and scary decorations. Eating candy while trick or treating can be a choking hazard or trigger allergies, so review ground rules before leaving home. Often, children enjoy handing out candy as much as receiving it
Have the child participate in a party:
At Halloween parties, some children enjoy wet or sticky textures like pumpkin filling and skinless grapes, whereas these make others feel uncomfortable and even nauseous. Instead of carving a pumpkin, decorate a jack o’ lantern with stickers and markers. A child who won’t enjoy bobbing for apples can put the apples in a bucket. Consider planning an event at home with a few friends. Small groups present an opportunity to socialize. A short, successful outing is always preferable to a longer stay that leads to a “meltdown.”
Help the child avoid a meltdown:
Limit the duration and number of people and activities. Give your child choices and advance notice of the sequence of events. Help your child learn to advocate by practicing phrases like “when is my turn?” or “please don’t touch me.” Know when to stop or disengage from the festivities by recognizing sensory overload—fatigue, hyperexcitability, crying, combativeness, etc.—and immediately go to a quieter, smaller space.
The Shawnee area has many opportunities to implement these strategies including Boo on Bell, which will be held Oct. 28-30.